Thursday, April 10, 2014


There's a lot to see in this WWLTV report on the cost overruns with the Loyola streetcar project. Most of us already knew that construction was delayed by a number of unexpected obstacles found underground.
In other words, what they found 14 feet underground often did not match what was marked in the city’s as-built drawings and, even if an item was noted in the plans, it was often falling apart.

Officials from Veolia Transportation, the RTA management company, said contractors stumbled on everything from crumbling water mains to unexpected underground drainage canals; sewer and power lines in the wrong spots; an old icehouse cellar that was leaking ammonia; even a petrified tree stump. Each surprise contributed to delays, which caused contractors’ overhead costs to increase.
One of the neatest things they found was a vestige of the New Basin Canal which once terminated near where the present day Union Passenger Terminal is located.

The continuing problems and work re-orders caused the project to exceed its budget so much that the once hoped for St. Claude extension had to be scrapped entirely. 
As for the final price tag for the Loyola line, RTA records show it was more than $60 million, a third higher than the original budget, which was based on engineers’ estimates in 2010. The RTA had to use $15 million of a $75 million pot of local bond and reserve money that was originally set aside to extend the Loyola spur eastward along Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue to Press Street.

Instead, that second phase will only extend to Elysian Fields Avenue.

This is unfortunate, of course, but also entirely understandable. RTA attempted to secure additional funding by applying for another federal TIGER III grant in 2011 but were turned down. Maybe someone will find some money eventually but I get the impression the city will have to get used to a tightening of the federal spigot in the years to come.

It's interesting, though, that this worked out in such a way that the leg of the project that ended up being ditched was the most popular with residents and transit activists when proposed.  The St. Claude line was the only one that would have served an actual neighborhood. By contrast, the Loyola line, which moves passengers along a ten block stretch of the CBD, had been dubbed the "streetcar to nowhere."

RTA now boasts that the Loyola streetcar has exceeded its projected ridership numbers. But critics point out that this comes as a result of gaming the system and inconveniencing riders in the process.
But Rachel Heiligman of Ride New Orleans, a nonprofit public transit advocacy group, said that because the RTA cut off the downtown segments of the Freret and Martin Luther King buses at the Union Passenger Terminal, those bus riders now must transfer to the Loyola streetcar if they want to get to Canal Street.

“What we’re doing is really just shifting the ridership from one mode — the bus — to the streetcar,” Heiligman said.

After those bus routes were cut off at the UPT, the RTA’s ridership data show both lost riders, suggesting that customers unwilling to transfer to the Loyola streetcar stopped riding altogether.

The Freret Number 12 bus lost 76,000 riders in 2013, a 40 percent decrease from the year before. The MLK Number 28 bus was down by about 5 percent, while overall RTA ridership was up 12 percent.
Ending the St. Claude line at Elysian Fields, as the plan now has things, doesn't really get it too far away from the heavily touristed French Quarter.  So what's left of the St. Claude extension is itself a "streetcar to nowhere" in the sense that it's less a transit line than it is an "economic development" tool.
Pres Kabacoff, a real estate developer from the Bywater neighborhood, said he thinks the streetcar will help spur business. Kabacoff even argued that slowing down vehicle traffic might be a good thing, since having cars whip by "is not conducive for good retail development."

He added, "To the extent that people have a difficult time in traffic getting down the street it may cause them to want to live in the area and use an effective streetcar."
Which brings us back to the Loyola cost overruns. Yes, there were all sorts of construction problems. But that wasn't the only factor which eventually priced us out of St. Claude. There was also this. 
The numerous delays put the project — situated in the center of the city’s sports tourism area — more than a year behind schedule, meaning it wasn’t going to be done in time for the Super Bowl in February 2013. The Landrieu administration made it clear that wouldn’t stand, so the RTA paid premiums to speed up the work and get it done just under the wire, Veolia managers said.
So those bus passengers RTA is forcing to transfer onto its streetcar to nowhere aren't the only transit users who have to take a back seat to the priorities of our dominant tourism industry.

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